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In a third step, the French Revolution then helped consolidate the belief that modern times were clearly and irreversibly superior. Along with the sense of superiority of modern times came the corollary that the future could be fashioned by an act of human will. One of the earliest adumbrations of the stage model was offered by Adam Smith in his lectures on jurisprudence. He argued for four stages: the age of hunters, the age of shepherds, the age of agriculture, and the age of commerce.

Yet Smith never tried to develop these stages in any systematic historical fashion.

by Wang, Dong

The desire of profit stifles the love of perfection. Interest cools the imagination, and hardens the heart. Various accidental causes, indeed, have contributed to accelerate, or to retard this advancement in different countries. Many of the elements of Western assumptions of cultural superiority could be found in Millar but he seems to have considered all nations capable of making the same transition. Rather than focus on the mode of subsistence as determining, Turgot pointed to general cultural changes such as the invention of writing, the spread of towns, and the printing press. His outlook was distinctly more sanguine about the present and the future than that of Ferguson or Millar.

The grossest ignorance spread through all nations and all the professions. A deplorable picture, all too true to life, of Europe during several centuries. Even at the darkest moments, however, the successes of the future arts and sciences were germinating. The towns survived and then regained vigor under the protection of princes.

In he may not have been entirely aware of its significance, but his own later actions indicate that he soon grasped it: those who could unlock the secrets of the passage of time would be able to influence, if not control, the future. He put aside his fulminations about the Middle Ages and said more about the general stages of historical development from hunting, to herding, to agriculture, to urban and commercial ways of life.

Some nations in the present remain stuck in their historical backwardness while others show the effects of their historical advancement. Density of population, commerce, the rise of scientific method, printing, and modes of communication all seem to enter into the equation. Most important, however, is that all these were factors produced from within human societies themselves and could be studied for their significance. A crucial link had been established, by Turgot and the Scottish philosophers, to the nineteenth-century view present, for example, in Marx and Comte that the study of the past could reveal the general laws of social development.

Turgot was known to his contemporaries, such as Hume, as an exponent of the notion of human perfectibility and historical progress, but his later reputation as a prophet of perfectibility rested mainly on Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, his friend and disciple, who wrote his biography in , and Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, who published a memoir on his life and works in — and prepared the first edition of his collected works.

Still, the back and forth between French and British authors Turgot corresponded with Hume and Price and knew English and the parallel development on the two sides of the Channel of notions of social progress through stages of development led to deeper and deeper rooting of these notions over the course of the eighteenth century. It was no longer enough to build upon the breakthroughs in knowledge accomplished since the Renaissance, as Voltaire and Turgot advised; revolution required a conscious breach in time.

In his inimitable fashion, Condorcet explained, on the eve of his own death in , why the French Revolution took the form of a rupture. He was comparing the American and French Revolutions:. Not having at all to reform a vicious system of taxes; not having to destroy feudal tyrannies, hereditary distinctions, rich, powerful or privileged guilds, or a system of religious intolerance, [the Americans] could limit themselves to establishing new powers and substituting them for those that the British nation until then exercised over them.

Nothing in these innovations reached the mass of the people; nothing changed in the relations formed between individuals.

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In France, by contrast, the revolution had to embrace the entire economy of the society, change all social relations, and reach to the last links in the political chain. Robespierre now deliberately amalgamated monarchical despotism and feudal arrogance, whereas Voltaire, Mably, and even Rousseau clearly distinguished between them. Indeed, innovation itself now took on a new, positive meaning. Yet, this experience of temporality could not be decreed, as the devisers of the new revolutionary calendar discovered to their chagrin; it had to be lived and learned.

Leaders could encourage their followers to rub out reminders of the past and adopt new symbols as their own, but they soon found that adherence was not automatic.


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The new calendar ultimately failed, though not for want of official effort, while the metric system succeeded. Even the much dreaded guillotine lasted. Special costumes for legislators, the Constitutional Church, and theophilanthropy all fell by the wayside. Still, some of the most polarizing of revolutionary inventions—the Festival of Reason, the Committee of Public Safety, the Terror itself—remained in the repositories of collective memory, suggesting that even when the institution of the new failed, the sheer scale of the endeavor itself signaled a rupture in secular time.

With events falling one upon the other at high speed, the present seemed elongated. Let us hurry to fill this gap; let us reconstitute human nature by giving it a new stamp. At the same time, it also cleared a path to a new kind of determinism. I did not at all shape my epoch, time of revolution and political storms…; I only did what I had to do, obey it. The Enlightenment historians had shown how humans could study their own past to get a sense of the direction of history. With this knowledge, humans could then decide to facilitate progress accelerate time , as Turgot did himself as a government minister and as the revolutionaries tried to do on a massive scale.

All circumstances taken together, the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world. Modernity, though the term itself was not yet well-established, was the byproduct of this conflict between proponents and opponents of the revolutionary rupture in time.

It is possible to approach this subject in a very different way, as does William Nelson, who shows how practices such as animal breeding and economic modeling helped generate a new disposition toward the future in the eighteenth century. Such fine-grained analysis in different registers is critical to deepening our understanding of the seventeenth and eighteenth century reorientation toward time.

In other ways, though, it moves by fits and starts, changing little in some respects over decades and then very quickly at precise moments. It is perhaps not very surprising that a specialist in the history of the French Revolution like myself would give a certain priority to that moment when time is profoundly politicized; control over time becomes a political issue in a very self-conscious fashion during the French Revolution. But it also appealed to more and more people; the French Revolution brought the people on to the stage of politics, and historians therefore had to pay attention to them in their writing.

The genres of historical writing proliferated, with the historical novel being one of the striking examples. Modernity and history writing thus became complicit. By reconfiguring the past, the very positing of modernity opened up a new role for history. It becomes singular in the sense that it ceased being a repository of repeatable exempla and became instead a nonreplicable progression.

Afterward, however, acceleration only quickened. There must then exist long-term formal structures in history which allow the repeated accumulation of experience. But for this, the difference between experience and expectation has to be bridged to such an extent that history might once again be regarded as exemplary. History is only able to recognize what continually changes, and what is new, if it has access to the conventions within which lasting structures are concealed. Does he regret the defeat of the ancients by the moderns?

Does he wish for an orientation toward time that gives more attention to the past and perhaps also to the future and correspondingly less to the present? The resulting acceleration takes three forms, which interact to produce a selfpropelling feedback loop: technological acceleration, which is easy to measure; social change or transformation, which is harder to measure but still amenable to analysis many people now change jobs several times rather than maintaining one for a lifetime, for example ; and the heightened tempo of everyday life the feeling of being rushed , which may or may not be an illusion.

Even when the analysis is not Heideggerian, as, for example, in Scheuerman, it tends to be alarmist. Somehow speed is not good. Void indeed. When first invented in the early nineteenth century, steam-driven locomotives seemed incredibly fast to contemporaries, though they barely managed to propel railway trains twenty miles an hour.

THE UNITED STATES AND CHINA: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present | By Dong Wang

I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Experiments have shown that the perceived duration of an interval of time is determined by the complexity of the task assigned rather than the duration of the task itself. In addition, the perceived complexity of a task depends on its relative familiarity.

Unfamiliar complexity accounts for the slowing down of time, as in for example the experiences of the French Revolution. Temporal compression—the sense of time accelerating—comes from the routinization of that complexity. In general, we might conclude that the increasing differentiation of modern society influences our perception of time by producing greater complexity of tasks, but that complexity cuts both ways, producing either compression or protracted duration.

The modern emphasis on moving quickly away from the past, and as Fritzsche puts it, restlessly iterating the new, leads to a kind of disciplinary reductio ad absurdum. In the nineteenth and even much of the twentieth century, most history students studied ancient and medieval history and most European gymnasium students learned Greek and Latin.


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  • Now most undergraduates and even many graduate students—at least in the United States—prefer to study the twentieth century and what they prefer as consumers determines at least in some measure what they are taught. In recent years, more than half of history doctoral students in the U. Is the historical discipline, one wonders, truly historical any more? The pressure to innovate grew steadily within the historical discipline in the twentieth century. When James Harvey Robinson published his book The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook in , it caused a stir in American historical circles and was immediately hailed or criticized as a manifesto for a new generation of historians.

    Articles critical of it were still being published in the s.

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    Science proceeds by building upon previous discoveries, but as they advance scientists rarely feel the need to look back to work undertaken more than a short time before. Historians have tended to follow the scientific model, even though it is not entirely germane to historical investigation.

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    So students are more likely to know the most recent historical writings and to be almost entirely ignorant of the work of historians before and especially before I am willing to wager right now that not one of my students has ever read a word written by James Harvey Robinson. I have found to my chagrin that I sometimes only give a more up-to-date twist to arguments made long before me by Alphonse Aulard or Albert Mathiez. But repetition in the name of novelty is not the most serious problem. Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation.

    Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns as it might be said I am doing right here and now too often leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards.

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    They are not up-todate. This is not to say that any of these findings are irrelevant or that we should endorse an entirely relativist point of view. Yet we should question the stance of temporal superiority that is implicit in the Western and now probably worldwide historical discipline. Modernity and history went hand in hand from the start. In the end, however, modernity is more than a time schema.

    The Oxford English Dictionary definition, with which I began, misrepresents the most crucial element in modernity, i. In this sense, I do very much believe that modernity exists, for the standard of reason allows us to question the modern time schema and even the workings of reason itself. Paul Hazard, The European Mind, — , trans. It also provides graduate students with fellowships and research assistantships on a competitive basis. The Department encourages applications from highly qualified candidates in Chinese history. Successful applicants are expected to have excellent undergraduate training as evidenced by GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation and, when appropriate, samples of historical research.

    In addition, applicants who are non-native speakers of Chinese should have a firm start at least three and preferably four years in the Chinese language. For information regarding the program requirements for the M. Skip to main content. Undergraduate Newsletter Archives. Employment Outcomes Job Search Resources. Eugen Weber Book Prize. Jaimie D. Obituary for Professor Peter Reill.